Paddling is an essential skill for surfing, but many beginner, intermediate, and even advanced surfers struggle to improve their surf paddling or feel held back by injuries and pain. The fact is, many surfers lack the prerequisite mobility and strength to paddle without placing undue stress on the back, neck, and shoulders.
When paddling, multiple parts of your body must work together to maximize power output and efficiency. Without getting too deep into specific paddling technique, let’s review the strength and mobility required for proper posture on the board. (Check out this article from Barefoot Surf Travel for an excellent explanation of paddling technique).
Surf Paddling Position
Basic positioning while paddling should maintain an arch/backbend (extension) throughout the upper (thoracic) and lower (lumbar) spine. The chest and elbows are held high with feet together. Even maintaining this position for a few seconds tends to be quite challenging for many novice surfers. If you are tiring out just holding this position – or lack the mobility to even get into the position in the first place – then you’re guaranteed to lose steam while paddling hard to pass the break or catch a wave. Spending time now to build this mobility, endurance, and strength will help you improve your surf paddling as quickly as possible.
An important distinction before we dive in is that we are primarily focusing on active mobility, which we will define as the range of motion that you are able to actively move through at a particular joint or body region. Passive mobilityis the overall range of motion that you have, but may not be able to access during movement. So, active mobility requires adequate passive mobility as well as strength/control throughout that range (check out this article for a full exploration of active and passive mobility).
The first important area where mobility is required is the spine. If you are unable to achieve adequate extension (arch) in your spine not only will your paddling be less efficient, but you will also place more stress on your neck and shoulders. Take a look at this picture of pro surfer Kelly Slater paddling.
JEFFREYS BAY, SOUTH AFRICA – JULY 15: Kelly Slater of the United States paddles back to the Supertubes lineup after surfing a wave all the way to the rocky shoreline on July 15, 2010 in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. (Photo by Kelly Cestari/ASP/CI via Getty Images) Kelly Slater
Notice the extension in both his upper and lower back. This extended position allows him to keep his head high without straining his neck. Furthermore, he is able to paddle without forcing his shoulders into end range. So, spine extension mobility enables pros and amateurs alike to avoid dangerous compensations at the neck and shoulders that not only increase risk of injury, but also significantly reduce paddling efficiency.
The next area of focus is the shoulders. From the discussion of spine mobility, we know that spine extension relieves stress on the shoulders by decreasing the demand on shoulder mobility. However, even with proper spine position, surf paddling still requires quite a bit of active shoulder mobility. You must be able to clear the water as you pull your elbow back and reach forward for the next paddle stroke.
This movement is dependent on multi-planar mobility of the shoulder joint as well as the scapula (shoulder blade). If you lack mobility in either of these components you will struggle to clear the water without excessive roll rail-to-rail; and with each stroke you will be pushing your shoulders to their limit, greatly increasing long-term risk of injury and pain.
To review, paddling a surfboard properly demands excellent mobility in the spine and the shoulders. Limited spine extension mobility drastically increases stress on both the neck and shoulders. Simultaneously, this limited motion makes it difficult to surveil your surroundings and negatively impacts your paddling efficiency.
Deficits in shoulder mobility make it harder to clear the water with each stroke, increasing roll and forcing you to push your shoulders to end range. With that background, let’s jump into the exercises so you can improve your surf paddling!
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Improved Surf Paddling Superset A: Passive and Active Extension Mobility
This superset focuses first on passive mobility in the thoracic spine. Next, it addresses active spine mobility with an isometric hold in the extended position. Putting these together will improve your surf paddling by helping you achieve and maintain proper extended spine posture.
Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
For the first exercise, you’ll need a foam roller. The size is not particularly important, but it must be long enough for you to lay with it horizontally across your back.
Start with the roller perpendicular to your spine, level with the base of your shoulder blades. Clasp your hands behind the base of your neck (not your head) and bring your elbows toward one another. Keeping your hips on the floor and your neck in a neutral position, extend (back-bend) your spine over the foam roller as far as is comfortable. Make sure that you keep your abdominal muscles engaged isolating the movement primarily to your upper back, with minimal movement in your lower ribs and lower back. You should feel a comfortable stretch in your upper back.
Perform a few reps at each level before moving the roller slightly higher and repeating. Experiment with different breathing patterns and see how it feels if you inhale as you extend versus if you exhale. Continue this all the way up to the top of your upper back.
Perform 3 sets of 1 minute, moving the roller up and down your back.
Back Extension Passive Range Hold
Next up is an isometric hold in back extension. Start by laying on your belly propped up on your elbows. Now, lift your arms and attempt to maintain that position – losing as little height as possible. Ideally, you will lose just a little bit of extension when you lift your arms, but not so much that you are unable to control it. This should feel pretty challenging and the muscles along your entire spine should be working hard.
As you lift your arms, keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down with your elbows drawing into your sides. Your eyes should be looking at the ground in front of you (not straight forward) so that your neck stays in line with your upper back. Make sure that the tops of your feet remain on the floor. Continue to breathe throughout the hold.
Perform 3 sets of 6, 5 second holds.
Improved Surf Paddling Superset B: Shoulder Mobility and Endurance
The shoulder flexion rockback is designed to open up more overhead range in your shoulders. We’ll then follow that with a prone dowel row to build strength/endurance in that new range. These two will improve your surf paddling by enabling you to clear the water more easily and paddle longer before losing steam.
Shoulder Flexion Rockback
For the first exercise, start on hands and knees. You will then walk your hands forward about 12-18 inches, keeping your index fingers pointing forward.
From this position, rock back toward your heels while pressing your hands firmly into the ground. Maintain even pressure around the entire circumference of your palm as you bring your chest toward the floor. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged to prevent your lower ribs from flaring out.
You should feel a comfortable stretch in your shoulder region and upper back. Exhale as you press your arms overhead and inhale deeply as you return to the starting position.
Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
Prone Dowel Row
This next one is tough, but your paddling will benefit immensely from the endurance and mobility you will gain. You’ll need a stick of some kind, even a mop or broom will do. In a pinch you can even use a resistance band, belt, or towel.
Start laying flat on your stomach with the tops of your feet flat and your chest low to the ground. Your eyes should be looking straight at the floor with your chin tucked so that your neck is in line with your upper back. Hold the stick overhead with both hands so that your arms form a ‘Y’ shape. Start with a wider (easier) grip and you can progressively make it more narrow (harder) as needed.
Begin by lifting the stick off the floor and rowing it down toward your head. Level one is to bring the stick to touch the top of your head and back to the starting position. Level two is to row the stick behind your head to your shoulders before returning to the start. The stick should stay off the floor for the entirety of the set. You should feel the muscles of your upper back and shoulders working hard.
Make sure your wrists remain in neutral, your chest stays low to the floor, your feet remain on the floor, and your chin stays tucked with eyes looking directly at the floor.
Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
Improved Surf Paddling Superset C: Back Extension Strength and Core Stability
Prone back extension focuses on strength and endurance. The second exercise builds core stability in the paddling position. This superset will improve your surf paddling with greater efficiency through core stability and added strength in your back extensors, allowing you to easily adjust spine position on the board.
Prone Back Extension
Start laying flat on your belly with both hands hovering between the front of your shoulders and the floor. Keep your elbows pulled tightly into your sides with your shoulder blades squeezed together and drawn down toward your hips. Your chin should be slightly tucked with your neck lined up with your upper back. The tops of your feet should be flat on the floor with your feet touching or nearly touching one another.
From the starting position, contract the muscles of your back to lift your chest as high off the floor as you can smoothly and with control (no jerking motions). Then – again in a smooth, controlled motion – lower back down, keeping your hands hovering slightly above the floor. You should feel muscles working all along both sides of your spine and around your shoulder blades.
Your shoulder, neck, and hand position should be constant throughout the exercise with movement only taking place in the spine. Make sure that your feet stay firmly on the floor as you lift your chest.
Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
Prone on Elbows Alternating Forward Reach
Begin laying on your stomach propped up on your elbows. Your forearms should be parallel to one another with your palms flat on the floor, fingers spread. The tops of your feet should be flat on the floor with your feet touching or nearly touching one another. Your chin should be slightly tucked with your neck in line with your upper back.
From this starting position, begin by tensing the muscles of your back, your abdominals, and your shoulders. Next, lift one arm and reach it forward, fully extending at the elbow before returning to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. Hold the rest of your body as stable as possible, with minimal twisting/shifting of your shoulders, torso, hips, and legs. You should feel that your body is more stable as you increase engagement of the muscles in your back, abdominals, and shoulders.
Throughout this exercise, keep your feet on the floor close to one another. Make sure your shoulders are pulling down away from your ears, with your elbows, forearms, and hands actively pressing into the floor.
Perform 3 sets of 12 reaches on each arm.
Full Workout Summary
Check out the table below for a summary of the full workout. Since these are supersets, you should perform one set of exercise 1 followed by one set of exercise 2 within a given superset until all sets/reps in that superset are completed. The layout should be like this: Superset A: A1-A2, A1-A2, A1-A2; then Superset B: B1-B2, B1-B2, B1-B2; then Superset C: C1-C2, C1-C2, C1-C2.
|SS A||A1||Foam Roller Thoracic Extension||3||1 minute|
|A2||Back Extension Passive Range Hold||3||6, 5s holds|
|SS B||B1||Shoulder Flexion Rockback||3||15|
|B2||Prone Dowel Row||3||15|
|SS C||C1||Prone Back Extension||3||15|
|C2||Prone on Elbows Alternating Forward Reach||3||12 e/ arm|
If the recommended reps are too difficult at first, just start with less and gradually build up.
That’s All Folks
Alright! That should give you a nice little routine to throw into the mix 3-4 times a week. You should see your surf paddling improve after working on this consistently for about 6 weeks. Better mobility in your back and shoulders will allow you to paddle harder and faster for longer. This translates to higher wave count and faster skill progression.Be on the lookout for more tips for surfers and other athletes coming soon in my blog. You can learn more about me and my background here. Drop a comment down below if you have any questions! Now it’s time to get off the couch and go shred, life is out there and it doesn’t wait.
Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides example exercises that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. These exercises address common deficits found in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
There should be no pain during any part of this program aside from a normal muscle “burn”. If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking this or any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.